In Defense of Dick Grayson: Objectification, Sexuality, and Subtext

In Defense of Dick Grayson: Objectification, Sexuality, and Subtext

I’ve gotta be honest with you all—Dick Grayson is my favorite comic book character. Cards on the table for this one: I’ve loved him since I was in high school and though our relationship has been a little bit rocky in the past, I always come back to him. So romantic, right? I know! Now this

I’ve gotta be honest with you all—Dick Grayson is my favorite comic book character. Cards on the table for this one: I’ve loved him since I was in high school and though our relationship has been a little bit rocky in the past, I always come back to him. So romantic, right? I know!

Now this is the part where I generally get a couple of eye rolls and a few quick “yeah, of course he is” or “I could have guessed” from whatever group of people I’m talking to. Liking Dick Grayson isn’t an unusual thing; he’s one of the oldest and most recognizable comic book characters in history. But, what’s more, liking Dick Grayson is almost an expected thing for someone like me—that is to say, a 26-year-old woman who happens to enjoy DC Comics.

Dick’s popular with the ladies (and no, that isn’t my attempt at a pun).

Dick Grayson has spent the greater portion of his seventy-five-year history being known for his appeal to women and people who are attracted to men. He’s done time in almost every niche of the industry—quirky kid, rebellious teen, worldly adult. Grayson’s moved from adolescent sidekick, to team leader, to solo hero. He’s the youthful, optimistic counterpoint to Batman’s brooding professionalism.

Lately, however, Dick Grayson has become a bit of a hot button issue on the internet and in fandom communities for this very reason. The advent of Tom King, Tim Seeley, and Mikel Janin’s book Grayson has sparked some furious debate among fans and creators alike: Is Dick Grayson’s status as a sex symbol problematic? And is it a harmful thing for either readers or the character himself?

Where does this anxiety come from, and why is it especially poignant?

Where did his popularity with demographics outside of heterosexual men really come from?

What, exactly, makes Dick Grayson so special?

To really unpack these ideas, we’ll need to go back to the very start.

The ’40s and ’50s: Moral Panic

Dick Grayson was created in 1940 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane with the intention of making Batman more relatable to readers. The Dark Knight wasn’t the quite the same broody, taciturn hero back then, but the creators still found him a bit alienating. Writing him all on his own, with only his internal monologues to really keep the story progressing, felt lacking. To put it simply, Robin was designed to be the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes. Batman needed someone to talk to.

Making that someone an adolescent boy was also a part of the plan. Relating to current readers was great, but the ability to relate to newer readers, younger readers, was better. The theory was clear—hook them when they’re young and you’ll have a customer for life. And it worked. Young readers loved Robin’s brightly colored costume and easy, happy counterpoint to Batman’s isolated adulthood.

It worked really, really well. Detective Comics became more popular than ever and Robin became an icon. Just like that, under a tidal wave of profits from this new generation of readers, the “dynamic duo” was born.

They would continue on their merry way for another 14 years until 1954—when a man named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent. Even the lightest comic history buffs reading this will immediately know where this is going. This book was the metaphorical earthquake that caused the most influential and devastating avalanche comic book industry has ever, and probably will ever see: the advent of the Comics Code Authority.

Now, for people unfamiliar with Wertham and the CCA, the story isn’t that complicated. Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist began to believe there was a link between the consumption of violent, deviant media and violent, deviant behavior. He zeroed in on comic books and fleshed out his arguments by famously falsifying his information. He fabricated evidence and misrepresented his sampling size and origin. Essentially, Seduction of the Innocent was the 1950s version of a fear mongering clickbait Facebook post. People were just as susceptible to the rhetoric then as they are now.

And, in 1954, this was genuinely groundbreaking stuff. This was grounds for mass public panic. Comic books were a relatively new thing, a very popular new thing at that. And not only were they popular, they were popular with young adults. Remember, this was 1954, we were dealing with things like the Cold War, like McCarthyism. Our national mood was paranoia. Deviance and strange behavior, promotion of anything outside the “norm,” those were all things very worthy of concern.

It went down like this.

In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham made some observations about Batman and Robin. He stated:

“The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious. […]

Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend Robin.”

He went on in this fashion, calling parents’ attention to, what Wertham believed to be, an almost hypnotic sort of subtextual element that might brainwash children into experiencing homoerotic fantasy.

Parents, as you might well imagine, were terrified. There were comic book burnings. There were organizations of concerned parents formed. There was even a Senate hearing. Something had to be done to save the youth.

That something turned out to be the voluntary creation of the Comics Code Authority. This organization would provide self censorship and content monitoring for comic books. Think of the CCA like the FCC or the MPAA. They would go through every book and make sure it adhered to a puritanical code of conduct, stamp it with a seal of approval, and send it off to be printed. This was all done in the hope of assuaging the moral panic caused by Seduction of the Innocent—And it worked! But not without repercussions.

Wertham’s book had another effect though, one that was no doubt extremely unintentional. If you’ve seen the movie Inception, you’ll remember a moment where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character explains the idea of implanting a thought in someone’s head—that if you tell someone “don’t think about elephants” the first thing that person will do is think about elephants.

It turned out that very same principle of inception is true about gay subtext in pop culture. Who knew?

With Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham spoke at length about just how unavoidably queer the relationship between Batman and Robin was. He zeroed in on Dick Grayson’s tiny green short-shorts, his nubile young body, his peppy personality. “Dick Grayson and his relationship with Batman is a homosexual fantasy,” Wertham all but tells us, “Don’t think about Dick Grayson as a homosexual fantasy.”

Okay. Maybe those weren’t his exact words, but the effect was the same. Suddenly, people who would have never in a million years considered Batman and Robin as homosexual icons had the thought planted into the very forefront of their mind. It colored everything—every interaction fans had with Robin as a character were suddenly called into question. Was Robin gay? Had we all been duped? How could we not have realized this earlier?

This moment, this aftermath, represented the first major fissure in Dick Grayson’s social and cultural iconography.

Publishers, writers, artists, the Comics Code Authority, and concerned parents looked at Dick under the CCA stamp of approval and said “No, no, we’ve run this character through our rigorous testing, there is nothing homosexual about him!” But that did not change the simple fact that this was one of the first times ever, in the history of pop culture, that a character had had their sexuality called into question in a major and public way. This was something queer comic book readers were able to look at and, if they had not already, read into. Wertham’s moral panic inadvertently brought fictional representation of a queer identity screaming to the forefront of people’s minds.

Don’t think about homosexuality, don’t think about Batman and Robin as a couple, don’t think about elephants.

This sort of identification and popularization, coupled with the simultaneous and overt denial—erasure of—queer identity, became ingrained in Dick Grayson from the very start.

This dissonance is important, so take note of it. It’s going to become a recurring theme.

Now, what’s the most logical step to take if you’re a writer or a publisher looking to assuage public anxiety about a character potentially being gay? You give him a female love interest. Sounds easy, right? There were some attempts made, and some missteps.

This is when things started to get a little bit complicated.

The ’60s and ’70s: Batgirl and Robin

The beginning was a bit of a slow burn. Writers began to allow Dick Grayson to age. This was a protracted reaction to Wertham’s accusations of sexual deviancy, which often touched upon the pederastic nature of an adult man and a young boy living in such close proximity with one another. It didn’t happen all at once, but by the 1970 Dick was a “teen;” by the mid-70s he was officially college age.

The major irony here is that despite being written as a boy in his late teens and early twenties, his costume hadn’t changed. Still entrenched in his scaly green panties and pixie boots, it’s possible that the “maturation” of Dick had some negative effects to asking readers to take him seriously. Luckily, seriousness was really the last thing the camp-era was going for.

What’s more is that Dick’s age progression was actually a pretty unique thing for the medium. Even today, comic book characters are not expected to age in real time, and when they do the progression is often met with resistance from fans and creators alike. This is a character who is experiencing transformation and change—puberty—in a fictional world conceptualized to be resistant to change. In the scope of the greater argument, this is a small point to make, but it’s worth noting that even in innocuous areas like continuity, Dick was on a diverging path from most of his heroic counterparts, one that dealt with things people don’t really like to deal with in pop culture.

The second thing that happened is probably a bit more obvious. Romance came into play.

Now, I won’t lie to you. Robin’s attractiveness to female readers and characters is something that had been explored before, but only in fleeting and silly moments, moments like Dick’s classmates in grade school expressing crushes on the Boy Wonder but loathing Dick himself. These stories were never allowed to be anything but brief jokes that fed into bigger capers. Writers knew Dick was a charming character, but were unwilling to give that charm any legitimacy. 


Beyond that, pre-code DC didn’t spend all that much time focusing on romantic exploits involving either of the caped crusaders. They had crime fighting to do. At the time romance comics were their own booming genre, one that focused on a huge readership of young girls. Superhero and crime comics largely were under the impression that they were catering only to boys who were adverse to romantic stories, in part due to 1950s gender norms.

Unsurprisingly, 1954 and beyond is when we really start to see comics become a “male-dominated” industry. Because of the CCA’s strict, misogynistic anti-sexuality policy, readers and fans of romance comics found their stories to be abruptly pigeon-holed into the same boring plots over and over again. Fans got bored, readership declined, books were canceled, and suddenly we were faced with an industry who does not believe this massive predominantly female fanbase ever existed in the first place.

So as you can imagine, making a romantic counterpart for Batman and Robin wasn’t as easy a plan as it probably looked on paper. How do you introduce a love plot into a story that’s made “for boys?” You have to prove your character’s staunch heterosexuality, you have to adhere to the code, but you have to keep targeting your assumedly anti-romance demographic. Rock, meet hard place.

The first attempt was in 1961 with the advent of Batwoman and Bat-Girl (the hyphen isn’t a typo). Kathy Kane and her niece Betty were an attempt to make Batman and Robin a sort of Brady Bunch style nuclear family.

Things were pretty awkward and didn’t do much but paint Dick as the unwilling recipient of affection in a relationship he really had no choice in.

Fans didn’t love it, and neither character lasted very long in their original incarnations.

However, the comics weren’t the only medium for Batman stories at the time. The Batman TV show began airing in 1966 and is well remembered as the very pinnacle of camp. But lucky for audiences everywhere, it was also the point of origins for one of the most iconic characters in DC comics today: Barbara Gordon.

Barbara Gordon was not actually introduced as a character in the comics themselves until 1967, after she had been introduced and made popular as Batgirl in the show. This new Batgirl was a hit for both male and female fans. She was a young adult, a crime fighter in her own right, a PhD  student, and the daughter of the police commissioner. In short, she was amazing, and she stuck around.

Batman’s appeal to a mass audience beyond just young boys did not go unnoticed by the comics industry. The crossover of Barbara from TV character to comic character helped serve as a bridge for a demographic of women who may have been alienated by the post-code age.

In 1975, Dick and Barbara made their real debut as a duo. They shared their first kiss in their first team-up issue—but it backfired on the editorial staff. Regardless of having been aged up to his late teens, Dick was still the “teen” wonder and Barbara was 25. Readers weren’t charmed.

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Angry letters poured in.

Here’s an editorial response:

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So, the kiss was “punishment” and there were no plans to develop a romance between the two. Interesting, right? But this was a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free moment for DC Editorial. They could strike a balance where there was an earnest amount of romantic subtext (heterosexual romantic subtext!) but they would never really have to commit to it.

This balance seemed to work. Or at the very least, it seemed to do it’s job. Fans liked Barbara Gordon, they played along with the romantic comedy atmosphere, and young girls were given incentive to transition from TV fans to comic readers. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.

(Also worth noting, amidst all this playful romantic tension between Batgirl and Robin, Dick was actually given a non-superhero girlfriend for his brief stint in college. Her name was Lori and she appeared in a whopping grand total of 18 comics. She no longer exists and is, unsurprisingly, mostly forgotten. You can probably assume based on that information alone just how much effort was put into developing their relationship on panel.)

This new, slow emergence of female voices in the world of Batman fans was not without its own stress. The pre-code era, the memory of failed romance comics, and the strict gender binaries enforced in ’50s media was barely in the historical rearview mirror of the ’60s and ’70s. And on the social front, this was the height of second-wave feminism. Tensions about gender identities and roles were high. Companies that benefited from an assumed gender binary in their demographics were anxious and by this time, the comics industry was now firmly entrenched in the hands of heterosexual men.

So painted across Dick’s identity we already had one major site of cultural anxiety—homosexual panic—and we were beginning to take our first steps toward a second: concern over the female gaze.

That brings us to our next era.

The ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s: A New Look at Hypermasculinity

The combination of anxieties, mixed with the steady decline of traditional superhero narrative rendered Dick a little rudderless and his popularity suffered for it. The camp of the Batman TV show didn’t serve him well after the series finished, and with the approach of the 80s—and the rising popularity of Marvel properties like X-Men that dealt with more topical plots—was rapidly pushing the good natured, playful Boy Wonder into irrelevance.

Enter the New Teen Titans and the final stage of Dick’s transformation from boy-next-door to sex symbol.

By 1980, the entire Batman franchise was circling the drain. Popularity plummeted; the franchise’s non-committal stance on romance was losing its charm, and camp was already charmless.

The Teen Titans, DC’s team of young sidekick heroes, actually existed in one-and-a-half iterations prior to gaining the prefix ‘New.’ Launched in 1964, the original Teen Titans, and the 70s revival of the same title and numbering scheme (hence the half), was a team made up of Robin, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy, plus occasional appearances of lesser known sidekicks as the series progressed.

By and large, the first incarnation of the Teen Titans was exactly the kind of story you’d expect to read in a book that has the phrase “Dig this crazy teen scene!” emblazoned on one of its covers in 1965.

The 1980 New Teen Titans were a different animal. In an attempt to up the ‘edge’ factor, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez zeroed in on the sort of interpersonal drama that was becoming popular in pop culture at the time. These were characters who were allowed to exist in a more morally grey area, with “soap opera” style stories.

The series introduced the alien princess Koriand’r, aka Starfire, whose truly salacious design would not have made it past any code inspection as few as 10 years prior. Statuesque and (very) scantily clad, she was, unquestionably, designed with the male gaze in mind, a trend that grew more and more prevalent the looser the restrictions of the CCA became. She also, within minutes of meeting Dick for the first time, kissed him.
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Starfire abruptly initiated the kiss. It was pretty long and looked fairly passionate. Once they break apart, it’s revealed that Starfire, in fact, was not trying to kiss the teen wonder, but rather using her alien biology to learn how to speak English.

Convenient, right?

Now if you’re thinking, “Man, Dick getting forcefully kissed under duress sure is a pattern in these stories!” you’re absolutely not wrong. You’ll notice that in these scenarios, Dick is portrayed as the victim of female attention, not the recipient of it. These are three women who are exhibiting some pretty seriously inappropriate behavior.

This is when it becomes important for us to remember, when dealing with discussions of fictional characters and their actions, that they are being written by people. People who exist in this world, with it’s own social and cultural contexts. Media is not happening in a vacuum. Fictional characters are not acting on their own.

What’s that old saying? If one’s an incident, two’s a coincidence, then three is a pattern. Three times in the space of 20 years we have a character, with at least a semi-understood female fan base, being very much forced to endure sexual harassment from female characters. Please pardon my sarcasm when I say this, but it’s almost like these moments were being written by men with very little interest in the idea of portraying female-driven sexuality in a positive light.

Take note of that. We’re going to come back to it.

The tone of the New Teen Titans was pretty well set from this point on, and all bets were off. Dick and Starfire eventually ended up in a real relationship, were allowed to be shown in bed together, and even in various states of undress—scandalous stuff, really. The comics industry was changing as fast as the times and the puritanical days of the CCA were being pushed aside in the interest of profit margins. Sex sells. And in DC’s case, sex sold better when the focal point was a statuesque, scantily clad alien princess and a handsome hero.

In 1984, Dick finally tried to shed the last vestiges of his adolescent identity as Robin and adopted his new moniker, Nightwing. This was the start of the real avalanche as far as Dick’s cultural iconography was concerned.

Make no mistake, Dick’s elevation to sex symbol had very little to do with intentionally appealing to female audiences at the time. Comic books have always been deeply embroiled in the world of “hypermasculinity,” an exaggerated portrayal of stereotypically “male” attributes like physical strength, bravery, and so on. In the classical sense, comics dealt with hypermasculinity pretty transparently: consider Superman’s ability to lift city buses and leap tall buildings in a single bound. But by the mid 80s, the concept of what hypermasculine meant was beginning to change.

By 1984, there was a cynical edge to comic book heroes, brought about by books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. People were no longer interested in seeing Boy Scout exploits of heroes, no matter how topical the plot lines became. Instead, they wanted things that evoked a sense of grit and violence.

Toxic masculinity was not something that popped up overnight in any culture, nor is it something that suddenly sprang up in 1984 in the comic book industry. It’s always existed and always colored our patriarchal society and all that entails. However, in the microcosm of DC comics, the mid 80s were when this idea of toxic masculinity was really beginning to manifest, in ways that we would recognize through most of the 90s and 2000s. This was when the connection between masculinity, hyperviolence and hypersexuality really start to be knitted together and when the role of Batman and conversely, the role of Dick began to really evolve. The Dark Knight began to get darker and Robin began to shed his campy outer shell and evolve into someone to really notice.

Dick’s heartthrob status became contingent on his ability to prove his masculinity through sexual, romantic, and physical conquests. His new Nightwing identity afforded him some distance from the baggage of being Robin and all that entailed, but it was a small gap at best. He was the capital-M Man, not the boy, not the tumultuous teen, and he must endure the burden of “proving” said manhood in the shadow of everything he once represented. After all, these were stories being written by people who grew up during an era of pop culture where the anxiety of Wertham’s fears was still a very real thing.

This was when Dick began to evolve into a sort of optimistic James Bond archetype. He was more relatable than Bruce Wayne but still mysterious, wealthy, and brilliant. He was youthful, attractive, surrounded by attractive women who fawn over him, and unquestionably idealized for male fans. The fact that women found him desirable was important, but auxiliary to his staunchly established masculine prowess.

After all, the idea of the superhero as male power fantasy is especially loaded for a character who has had his sexuality called into question and even more loaded when that character had such an awkwardly handled past with women, as both fans and fellow characters.

Dick, as Nightwing, must fulfill certain criteria in order to maintain the balance set in motion. Getting the girl was important, being physically dominant was important, being classically attractive was important.

Dick’s sexual and romantic exploits became more detailed, and with them came a stronger focus on Dick himself as an idealized man. These images were often attractive to female fans or to anyone who enjoyed looking at the male body, but with them came the double-edged sword of it all. By and large, these images were not being made with the express intent of catering to those gazes, but to establish Dick as a point of power.

These were still comics for men at the end of the day. But because of Dick’s unique position in our cultural memory, the expression of his hypermasculinity was allowed to manifest in ways that become incidentally attractive to demographics outside of that target.

The money from those other demographics, of course, was welcome, just not the commentary. Just not anything that might tip the delicate balance of carefully manufactured power and deflection that writers crafted around Dick Grayson over the course of 30-some-odd years.

Remember how I said that Dick being unwillingly kissed represented a pattern? And that pattern was likely the product of writers having very little interest or freedom in exploring any sort of active, positive, expression of female sexuality?

Well, if three times is a pattern, then a dozen or more times must be something else entirely.

This evolution in tone and shift in the expression of idealized hypermasculinity started to manifest itself in this way: Dick was allowed to freely express sexual desire, and freely allowed to be the recipient of sexual desire, but only when he was the one who is in control of the moment.

The moment he became the object of the gaze, or the object of someone else’s desire that he did not directly control, he expressed discomfort.

This trend of the villainous, inappropriate, or childish woman commenting on Dick’s body, or acting on Dick’s body without his consent continued through the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s.

It’s important to note the irony of a lot these ‘call out’ moments. For example, let’s take a look at that last panel and the outfits of the two women positioned behind Dick. Look at their poses. We are offered no recourse or commentary on the objectifying nature of their existence in the comic, but their ability to objectify Dick is explicitly called into question.

Some added context for the state of female characters in comics in this era: the late ’80s was when we got the now-infamous Batman story The Killing Joke, in which Barbara Gordon is sexually assaulted and paralyzed by The Joker. When interviewed about the story’s conception, writer Alan Moore explains how the project’s editor, Len Wein, told Moore, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”

Just a handful of years later, in 1994, was when we saw the articulation of the trope popularly known as “women in refrigerators,” a phrase coined and popularized by writer Gail Simone.  The phrase described any instance where a female character is maimed, killed, or depowered in order to provide development for a male character (usually her love interest). This phrase came about because of an issue of Green Lantern when hero Kyle Rayner comes home to find his girlfriend murdered and literally stuffed into the fridge of their apartment. The trope itself was not a new narrative device, as women have been being maimed or killed for the sake of male character development for decades before the Green Lantern incident, but the loosening of the CCA in the ’80s and ’90s made space for these moments to become increasingly more graphically violent and disturbing. 

Simone said that her initial posting of her commentary on comic news sites was a “big mistake,” and that she was “…flamed, called evil names, and essentially just blasted by fans.” (Via Women in Refrigerators)

So, it was not a great time for women in comics, fictional or otherwise. Not a lot of respect for female gazes or voices. Not a lot of care rendered in anything to do with feminine sexuality. In this context we can easily see why it’s so important for any female acknowledgement of Dick’s body to be written inappropriately or even villainously.

The more sexual and idealized Dick was allowed to become, the more attention he got from female and queer fans, the more the industry had to work to combat the past anxieties revolving around the character. This resulted in more and more heteronormative romances for Dick on the page. We can’t grant Wertham’s fears any legitimacy, we can’t make these stories “for girls.”

Writers did so in a few ways, some obvious, some less so. On the page, we had Dick’s deflection of female sexuality that he was not in control of, and we had a level of emotional posturing with relationships he was in control of. We had moments where we saw him manipulating with or being manipulated by sex.

There were editorial pushes to lean into Dick’s popularity with women and queer men coupled with the simultaneous desire to not acknowledge or grant legitimacy to the fanbase he found in those demographics. This translated to more sexualized poses. More pin-up style spreads. Multiple bait-and-switch wedding, marriage, and relationship teases which turned out to be fakeouts or got written out. Long strings of female side characters were introduced exclusively to be love interests.

Off the page, we had more concrete examples. We saw a lack of merchandise and lack of representation of him in other forms of media. There was a pervasive hesitancy in broaching his existence outside of the spheres of already established fans. For example, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a character literally named Robin, who was invented for the film franchise rather than allowing Dick himself to exist in that cinematic universe.

Dick Grayson is a character built upon one repeated mantra aimed at what eventually become two of his largest demographics, “Remember, this is not for you.”

Today: Steps Forward and Grayson

All of this can sound a little bleak when it’s laid out back-to-back-to-back like this. But have hope and don’t despair.

Our social and cultural consciousness is evolving and pop culture is (begrudgingly) being pushed to adapt. Steps are being taken, even if they’re accompanied by a considerable amount of kicking and screaming.

There’s still a long way to go, obviously, but some of the more recent developments in this effort can be seen in the most recent evolution of Dick as a character.

DC’s newest imprint of titles, “DCYou,” was founded under the banner of being a more diverse, more inclusive brand of comics. This is where Dick’s newest ongoing title, Grayson, finds its home.

Grayson resituates Dick as a sort of superhero-meets-secret-agent struggling to find his way in a new identity after his name and face were made public to the world. Earlier I compared Dick’s position in pop culture as similar to James Bond, and this book really cements that analogy. It’s a sexy spy thriller featuring an attractive, savvy male hero.

But wait, there’s more!

Much like his transition from Robin to Nightwing, Dick’s transition from Nightwing to Agent 37 is not only endemic of a shift in character tone but also a shift in the editorial climate in which the character is being written. “DCYou” is a conscious effort to dismantle the anxiety surrounding audiences outside of the white heterosexual males comics have spent the last several decades targeting. Obviously, that’s an optimistic simplification of an incredibly complex problem, but the results are still visible.

Within this new editorial climate new things are allowed to start happening. The female gaze is beginning to be acknowledged, rather than passively dismissed or silenced outright. 

These changes haven’t exactly been smooth sailing, nor have they been consistently perfectly executed. Fan reaction has been mixed and sometimes even violent. Now, a certain amount of negative reaction is to be expected; any major change in direction for a popular comic book character is met with some fallout. But the vehement and occasionally abusive response from fans aimed at writers Tom King and Tim Seeley is something that toes the line into being extraordinary even in these circumstances.

Let’s take a look at the changes and the tone that’s eliciting these responses.

Grayson is a sexy book. There’s sex and danger and plenty of moments that linger on Dick’s shirtless, idealized body. These moments aren’t in and of themselves anything revolutionary—we’ve seen Dick sexualized plenty of times. What makes Grayson truly interesting in it’s portrayal of Dick’s sexuality is the lack of deflection. The women Dick is surrounded by are allowed to be active participants in looking, and they are allowed to do so in healthy, even playful ways. Simultaneously, Dick’s agency as the object of the gaze is not violated. He’s aware of his circumstances, aware of his surroundings, and allowed to be a participant. He’s in on it, rather than in direct opposition to it. And despite moments of exasperation, the situation is never out of his control.

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Notice how Dick is both acknowledging the girls with a smile and actively participating in their game.

More importantly, Grayson does not make an attempt to shame female characters, or readers, for their expressed attraction. It allows it, and it moves on.

And what’s more, Dick is also seen working in a tenuous but close friendship with one of DC comic’s only gay male superheroes, Midnighter. The two of them are given space to work and taunt and flirt with one another without any inference or reaffirmation of Dick’s own sexuality. Dick’s allowed to exist in a space where queer subtext isn’t subtext at all, but completely out in the open, A middle finger to the fallout of Wertham’s fear-mongering if there ever was one.

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Groups of concerned fans have taken to reading these moments that rely on Dick being attractive, shirtless, and clearly being idealized for the purpose of objectification and saying, “This is horrible, this character deserves better.”

It’s easy to see where this logic is coming from. Objectification of female characters is something we, the feminist community at large, have been working to combat for years. So surely, following that train of thought, the objectification of male characters must be equally as deplorable.

This is where the train derails.

Objectification in terms of fictional characters has become a loaded word. Idealized, sexy, gorgeous humans being imagined for us to consume as fantasy is not an inherently bad thing. Women being drawn as gorgeous or sexy is not actually the root of the problem. The problem is the fact that for decades in this industry, that’s all female characters have been allowed to be. Imaginary ladies designed by men to be consumed by  them, and served up to them on silver platters.

Gorgeous women are not the issue. Women being allowed to be nothing but gorgeous in the comic book industry (and pop culture—culture—at large) is.

It is a systemic problem and not easy to combat or boil down but this much is true: female sexuality, and/or sexual desire aimed towards men, and the expression of that sexuality is not the enemy, nor is it something shameful.

Conversely, male characters do not experience this systemic problem. Male characters are idealized under the umbrella of masculine fantasy—they can be incidentally attractive, sure, but the power fantasy must not be disturbed. The male gaze must be considered before all others.

Dick Grayson is a character who has grown to embody the opposite of that ideal, and the anxiety revolving around it. He is an idealized male character who has been placed in a position which allows him to grant care and attention to the female gaze simultaneously with (sometimes even before) the male. 

That is what makes him so special. That is what makes his position in comic book history so interesting.

Grayson is a book that is openly and unabashedly being directed to women and anyone who finds men attractive, breaking free from the stigma built up around him and “non-traditional” demographics over the last 75 years.

Dick’s relationship with objectification and sexuality is a swamp of moral panic, anxiety, homophobia, and misogyny on the part of a medium deeply embroiled in patriarchal culture. That’s not to say the character himself is any of those things, but it’s impossible to remove him from his own cultural and historical context. However, with Grayson and other “DCYou” titles making an attempt to be inclusive, diverse, and free of the stigma of the ghost of the archaic CCA-dominated industry, we are finally beginning to see a legitimate exploration of him free of these anxieties.

A step that’s been seven decades in the making!

Is Grayson perfect? Not at all. Does “DCYou” represent the absolute solution to all of our problems? No way, not even close. Is it somehow doing a disservice to the character by catering to gazes and demographics that have been erased or deflected for decades? Absolutely not.

Dick’s tumultuous cultural history is rife with giving and taking, with erasing and denying, with baiting and switching. And yet still he remains one of the most popular comic book characters today, especially with women. This isn’t a fluke, nor is it a coincidence. Dick is popular because he is great. He’s a character who has, quite literally, been put through the wringer time and time again but always comes out shining and ready for more. He’s a character who has been through editorial hell over and over, yet somehow stands through the test of time.

He holds up because of his history, not in spite of it.

Dick was created to be the light to Batman’s dark, the person who could stand in the shadow of a place like Gotham City and not get swallowed whole. Through these past seventy-five years, he’s proven he can stand in the face of a culture that wanted nothing more than to scrub him out of our memories, or to re-brand him as something else entirely. He holds up because, whether they know it consciously or not, there will always be someone out there who needs to read stories about a person who is, in point of fact, unbreakable.

It’s not really a matter of him being “for us” now that Grayson is acknowledging our gazes. He’s always been for us. And that’s honestly pretty amazing. Despite the missteps and the fear and the agonizing deniability, he’s been for us all along.

It’s time we start admitting it.

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Meg Downey
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